When a sequel makes you leave the theatre thinking more about the original film than the movie you have just seen, something has gone terribly wrong simply because once, something went totally right. Case in point: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (showing here in Fort Collins). Aside from the undeniably intoxicating title, the series has lost all of the baroque weirdness that made the original film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, the most surprisingly delightful cinematic experience of 2003. So, in order to talk about how Stranger Tides fails, let’s look back at what made Black Pearl such a gem.
1. The “come out of nowhere” factor. To be fair, Stranger Tides is unable to replicate the genuine shock many moviegoers felt when realizing a movie based on a Disney ride was not going to be excruciatingly unwatchable. After all, the same year saw the release and swift disappearance of The Haunted Mansion. But, what Stranger Tides lacks that any good film should include is creativity and originality. The first film’s cock-eyed look at pirate mythology could be mined more productively than the criminal misuse of Ian McShane as Blackbeard. The character drives the plot through his obsessive desire to find the Fountain of Youth, a quest enabled by Jack’s magic compass and encouraged by his long-lost daughter, a dead-eyed Penelope Cruz. More on her later. What ends up to be mainly stunt casting could have been an opportunity for McShane to let his freak flag fly. Both Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush’s Hector Barbossa have, to put it lightly, an unusual way of embodying the hypermasculine archetype of the pirate. Reducing Blackbeard to a cartoonish MacGuffin puts the focus squarely where it should not be, on Captain Jack Sparrow. Which brings us to:
2. Captain Jack as a latter-day Shakespearean fool. Not to get too theoretical, but what gives this character his radical appeal is his propensity to speak truth to power, and in so doing, undermine and undo it. That’s what makes Depp’s portrayal so genius. His very body language and speech parodies and thereby dismantles the veddy British upper-crust bureaucrats who were his adversaries in the first film. Say what you will about the love story between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, it had to be the central narrative of the movie so Jack could riff on it. Moving Jack front and center, as the next three installments in the series have progressively done, diminishes his wry outsider status, not least because he has to mouth the kind of dull but necessary exposition that he should be skewering. Whereas the third Pirates movie, At World’s End, had simultaneously too much and too little of Captain Jack, Stranger Tides makes the mistake of casting him as a romantic hero. The movie ham-handedly hints at an earlier romance between Sparrow and Cruz’s character, Angelica, whose supposed ability to engender unwanted “feelings” in the young Jack caused him to abandon her. Let’s leave aside the fact that no woman, and certainly not one as sluggish and vapid as Cruz’s Angelica, would be enough to supplant Jack’s true love: the sea. Why burden this movie with another love plot aside from the “we love each other because we’re good looking” romance that gets told rather than shown between a young missionary and a mermaid? Though, as Dana Stevens indirectly posits, the reason might be a truly distressing and disgusting anxiety about the character’s sexuality, on a less political note, Jack should be a fighter, not a lover. His rogue disregard for others besides himself and his beloved Black Pearl both defines his character and makes it work.
3. A “just right” use of the supernatural. In what might be termed the “Three Bears” theory of fantasy elements in mainstream movies, some films are too hot (the fantastical elements of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were not what many viewers expected from a biopic) or too cold (Black Swan was just realist enough to throw mainstream audiences for a loop when things got truly funky in the third act), but Black Pearl was just right. So right, in fact, that it’s hard to think of the movie as a fantasy picture, though, with cursed zombie sailors, a magical coin, and one preternaturally human-esque monkey, that’s certainly what it was. Though Stranger Tides includes supernatural elements—the mythical Fountain of Youth, Blackbeard’s capacity to manipulate and miniaturize ships he overtakes, mermaids that come off as a cross between contestants on America’s Next Top Model and seriously pissed-off cats—there is no thematic weight to the weirdness. In Black Pearl, the supernatural curse mattered. The desire of Barbossa and his crew to recover the gold coins they had stolen and thereby escape their hellish undead existence not only drove the plot but gave them a pathos that Stranger Tides tries (and fails) to transfer to the mermaids. By gesturing towards, but not exploring, the supernatural world that the series inhabits, Blackbeard’s powers and the mermaids come off as odd and superfluous rather than central to the plot.
Thought it might not seem so from this review, I was rooting for this movie and found it likable enough. There are some genuinely enjoyable moments, mostly occurring in the first half hour, and two of which rely entirely on truly inspired cameo casting. But I truly believe that The Curse of the Black Pearl and the character of Jack Sparrow are significant in twenty-first century popular cinema, so it’s disappointing to watch the series slowly become merely mundane. The conclusion of Stranger Tides clearly positions itself for yet another installment, and I’ll be there if it happens, with contraband rum in my purse and my hope that the series can reclaim its magic at high tide.